change

hit the reset button

We’ve noticed how this strange new world in which we find ourselves, courtesy of COVID-19, has brought us to a relative standstill, though some places are standing still more than others.  Each of us has taken notice of that reality, sometimes in quite trivial ways.  (I was alarmed when the NHL suspended its season!  But the alarm has turned to elation since they have decided to have the playoffs!)

Shut happens
[photo by Jason Mowry on Unsplash]

Banu and I were discussing certain realities in the church.  We are aware that we’re in an in-between time.  (Never has interim pastor training been more spot-on!)  What is happening now?  What will happen when “this” is all over?

In my Easter sermon, I addressed this very thing.  “There has been much discussion about getting back to normal (post pandemic) and how long it will take before it happens.  I don’t believe it will ever happen.  If we somehow pretend to go back to the way things were, we’ll be fooling ourselves.  These events are happening; there’s nothing we can do to change it.  The question will be if we learn from this—if we allow the Spirit to teach us.”

Has a reset button has been given to us?  What would it mean to hit it?  One of the scripture texts for Trinity Sunday is the conclusion of 2 Corinthians.  In 13:11, the apostle Paul says, “Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell.  Put things in order…”  It’s probably best to read that as a passive instruction.  “Be restored to order.”  Be restored.  Permit yourselves to be set straight.

It appears to be increasingly certain that this coronavirus is here to stay.  We need to make long term plans, not simply knee-jerk reactions.  Unless we are prepared for chaos around the globe (okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit!), our economic, political, and even spiritual mindsets need to change.

Is there any wisdom we can glean from Paul’s use of that single Greek word, καταρτιζω (katartizō)?  Surely “be restored to order” can be seen as applying, to not just our relationship with other humans (be they in the church or not), but to our relationship with the earth itself.  It better be—no, it must be—if we are to live within our calling to be stewards of God’s good creation.

Timeout popIt looks like global climate change has taken on a whole new dimension.  Planet earth is calling “timeout.”

[Gregg Popovich, awesome coach of the San Antonio Spurs, calls timeout]

Maybe hitting the reset button will become a daily exercise.  And to be honest, doesn’t that reflect teachings handed down through the centuries?  For example, the prophet Jeremiah wrote to the exiles in Babylon (who were facing their own strange new world), “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (29:7).  Every morning, when they woke up, they had to hit the reset button.  They had no choice.  Still, the prophet of God encouraged them.  He assured them that was the way to life.

ResetIf human history—if church history—is any guide, the changes we need to make are usually the ones forced on us.  But so be it.  May the Spirit lead, by any means necessary, the restoration required to live and to prosper in this crazy new age unfolding before us.


wearing the bandana

On the night of November 12, 1995, I walked home from the Baskin-Robbins where I worked while at seminary in Philadelphia.  Banu and a friend of ours were in the apartment.  I went to the bedroom and sat down.  Very soon, I entered what was like a waking dreamlike state.  The air seemed almost tangible.

I’m not sure how much time went by, but the next thing I knew was Banu looking at me, saying she had been calling me.  She had a look of concern on her face, and before I knew it, paramedics were taking me by ambulance to the hospital.  By the time we arrived, I was completely lucid.  After examining me, the doctor suspected I might have a blood clot.  After testing, they discovered I had a brain tumor, so that meant surgery, radiation treatments, and chemotherapy (a lot of chemotherapy).

1 acI was left with a scar on my head where the incision was made.  I took to wearing a bandana, first to protect the incision, and then to hide the scar.  (By the way, I had bandanas of many different colors!)  Three months later I was in our apartment with Banu and another friend, and the same thing happened.  It turned out to be a staph infection—so another surgery, with the incision in the same place.  This time, the scar was more pronounced.  It was quite visible.

(I took to dividing my life into BC and AD, based on that first surgery on the 14th: Before Cancer and After Diagnosis.)

As I mentioned, I would wear a bandana on my head, and I did that for two and a half years, well after it was medically necessary!  Of course, the radiation caused me to lose my hair, but that wasn’t the main reason I wore them.  I didn’t like that scar, and I didn’t want other people to see it!  Even after we went to Nebraska to serve our first church, I still wore them for over a year.

I think I could describe that time with the bandanas as a liminal time or a liminal space.  What, you may ask, is “liminal”?  It comes from the Latin limen, which means “threshold.”  We’re familiar with the word “subliminal”—below the threshold.

As Richard Rohr puts it, “Liminal space… is where we are betwixt and between, having left one room or stage of life but not yet entered the next…  It is a graced time, but often does not feel ‘graced’ in any way.  In such space, we are not certain or in control.  This global pandemic we now face is an example of an immense, collective liminal space.”[1]

His friend Sheryl Fullerton says of liminal space, “The old touchstones, habits, and comforts are now past, the future unknown.  We only wish such a time to be over.  We may be impatient to pass through it quickly, with as little distress as possible, even though that is not likely.”[2]

Liminal space is often not much fun at all.  We might compare it to the pain of growing up.

If we handle this liminal space well, we are more open to developing, to discovering.  We allow “room for something genuinely new to happen.”  Actually, it’s going to happen anyway.  It’s a question of will we welcome it, or will we be dragged kicking and screaming!  I think my refusal to discard the bandana was a sign of kicking and screaming.  I was reluctant to say goodbye to that part of my life.  (The BC.)  I would never be the same again.  But guess what?  That’s okay!

I began with this rather lengthy introduction, as trivial as it might seem.  I want to draw an analogy to a passage in the book of Acts.  The story of Stephen reflects a dramatic shift in the life of the early church.  There is indeed a liminal space, an in-between time, in which change darlin’, is a-comin’.  The church will never be the same again.

2 ac

In chapter 6 we see what’s coming down the pike.  Verse 1 says, “Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists [that is, the Greek speaking believers] complained against the Hebrews [who actually spoke Aramaic] because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.”  The ethnic balance is shifting; the demographics are changing.

The church leaders see trouble on the horizon, so they arrange for “seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom,” to whom they can entrust this ministry of social justice, this ministry of compassion (v. 3).  One person stands out, our dear friend “Stephen, full of grace and power, [who] did great wonders and signs among the people” (v. 8).

He draws the wrong kind of attention.  Stephen is becoming a pain in the rear end for many of the powers-that-be.  He is hauled in to appear before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high council, and give an account for himself.  For most of chapter 7, he gives a history lesson, starting with Abraham.  Things are going well until he gets to the temple, saying, “the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands” (v. 48).  The folks he’s talking to do not want to hear that.

But he goes even further.  “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.  Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute?  They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers” (vv. 51-52).  They really do not want to hear that.

And so we get to the point where they see red and start grinding their teeth.  Things are looking grim for Stephen.  He’s in for a world of hurt.  That change in the church I mentioned earlier—that liminal space and time—is now coming into sharp focus.

Joel Kime comments on this.  “Right at that moment, something amazing happens, an astounding event that can help us learn to think differently when we are in the middle of pain.  Stephen, as we read in verses 55-56, has a vision of God.  And what’s more, he has the audacity to tell the people what he sees!  What can we learn from this?  Though he was facing a perilous reality, Stephen is 100% focused on God.  In the midst of his liminal moment, he was still attuned to God.”[3]

3 acThat’s what I touched on earlier.  That “not yet” time can bring with itself confusion, anguish, suffering, maybe even embarrassment.  Stephen is a good role model.  “What can it look like for us to focus on God, right in the middle of the uncertainty, the pain, the struggle?”

Again, that can involve us as individuals, a family, a church, or indeed the whole world.  This time of coronavirus is a time of wearing the bandana.

Stephen rips off his bandana.  As he prepares to meet his Maker, he prays, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  And then, in Jesus-like fashion, while drawing his final breath, he cries out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (vv. 59-60).

While all of this is going on, we’re introduced to “a young man named Saul.”  He’s keeping watch over of the coats of those throwing stones.  He gives a thumbs-up to the entire affair.  In The Message, Eugene Peterson put it this way: “Saul was right there, congratulating the killers.”

Here’s where we get to another of those liminal spaces, those liminal times.  Brutal persecution breaks out, with Saul doing his part by hauling believers to prison.  Again, here’s how Peterson put it: “And Saul just went wild, devastating the church, entering house after house after house, dragging men and women off to jail.”  I often wonder how I would fare under such vicious treatment.  Would I cave in and renounce the faith?

After this baptism of fire, “those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word” (v. 4).  When all is said and done, the forces of evil cannot defeat the forces of good.  It might take a long time.  It might take a great deal of perseverance, but those who stand will be empowered by the Spirit.

In these strange times, we are being called to persevere.  We are leaving one way of being and will be emerging into a future that has yet to be revealed.

Fullerton says, “Like Jonah in the belly of the sea monster, we are led where we do not want to go—not once, but many times in our lives…  In the unknown space between here and there…life happens.  And, if we attend, we can feel the Holy Spirit moving with us in a way that we may not be aware of in more settled times.”

Is it possible, in some bizarre, unwelcome way, the coronavirus can actually be seen as a gift?  Please believe me, it’s not a gift I want!  But it’s here, and there’s not much we can do about it.  We can’t take it back to the store and get a refund.  (Partly because very few stores are open!)

4 ac

We’re told by Fullerton, “we can learn to let reality—even in its darkness—be our teacher, rather than living in the illusion that we are creating it on our own.”  We encounter “a disturbing time and space that not only breaks us down, but also offers us the choice to live in it with fierce aliveness, freedom, sacredness, companionship, and awareness of [holy] Presence.”

I again find myself being challenged.  Maybe I am wearing that new bandana presented by the pandemic.  Maybe I want to cover up a new scar.  Maybe I’m too slow to deal with the new reality that’s unfolding.  Maybe I’m not the only one wearing a bandana.

However, there are opportunities.  On Easter, my mother and sister, who live in Tennessee, tuned in.  My newfound family in Florida did the same.  And of course, we’re joined by the folks in Cohocton every Sunday.  Many of you have friends and family joining us.  That’s just one aspect of these crazy, strange times.

One thing we’re being taught is to slow down.  That comes with its own challenges.  We are being forced to make connections in new ways.  We need to stay true to that, to “live in it with [that] fierce aliveness, freedom, sacredness, companionship, and awareness of [holy] Presence.”

As we accept that unwelcome gift, we can join with Stephen as he proclaims, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”

 

[1] cac.org/between-two-worlds-2020-04-26

[2] cac.org/the-liminal-paradox-2020-04-29

[3] joelkime.com/2020/03/25/what-to-focus-on-when-you-are-in-pain-acts-68-83-part-3


how are we called?

“He was a coward.”  That was Banu’s comment on reflecting how Abram had Sarai pose as his sister.  That is, he had her pose as his sister in order to save his own neck.  Upon entering Egypt, he knew that the Pharaoh’s officials would want to take her, because she was a good-looking woman.

1 gn(I’ll use the names they were given a few years later, Abraham and Sarah.)

I will admit that it might be hard to argue with her assessment of Abraham’s decision.  (That is, his being a coward!)  We’ll look at what might have been behind his choice in a few moments.

Once again, and I mention this from time to time, the lectionary compilers tended to edit out embarrassing or troublesome verses.  The reading in Genesis for today ends at verse 4.  Showing one of the great figures of faith like Abraham treat his wife the way he does might not seem especially heroic.  But we need to pay attention to that stuff.  If God’s calling of Abraham is to have any real meaning for us, then we should see how that gets worked out in, say, our own messy and complicated lives.

Still, as I just said, we’ll be getting to the too-often deleted aspect of the story momentarily.

As for the commonly-agreed-upon heroic aspect of the story, it’s not for nothing that Abraham is given the title “Father” Abraham—that the faith traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam trace their history back to him.  The whole thing got started when, somehow, the Lord said to him, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (v. 1).

What precisely does that mean?  How did Abraham receive that call from God?  Was he hearing voices?  Did he have an exceptionally vivid dream?

Maybe it was a gradually growing awareness.  Some have suggested that Abraham grew disenchanted with the worship that was practiced in his homeland—worship of the sun and moon.  At some point, he couldn’t take it anymore, or perhaps, some people couldn’t take him anymore!

2 gnIn any event, as one writer tells us, “Abraham’s journey to the Promised Land was…no routine expedition of several hundred miles.  Instead, it was the start of an epic voyage in search of spiritual truths, a quest that was to constitute the central theme of all biblical history.  The all-important commencement is…‘Go forth.’”[1]

The part of the message that seals the deal is in verses 2 and 3: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”  Okay, not bad: God will bless me, and I will bless others.  Now those others get drawn into the picture.  “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

That last line can also be translated as “by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.”

What can we make of all that blessing?  As Christians, we stand in that tradition, the blessing of the call of Abraham and Sarah.  It’s important to include Sarah; Abraham could not have done very much without her.  Apparently, one of those things would be using her to make sure he stayed alive while in Egypt!

Verses 2 and 3 promise the blessing of becoming a great nation—of being a conduit of blessing to all the families of the earth.  Being a blessing means several things, among them being a source of good will, a source of shalom, a source of light.

As for that business of the calling of Abraham having meaning for us, Dan Clendenin refers to what he calls “Abraham in Three Movements.”[2]

“God’s call upon Abraham’s life,” he says, “is a call that’s repeated to each one of us today.  It’s a call that subverts conventional wisdom, and so it can feel counter-intuitive, for it’s a call to move beyond three very human, powerful and deep-seated fears—fear of the unknown that we can’t control (ignorance), fear of others who are different from us (inclusion), and fear of powerlessness in the face of impossibilities (impotence).”

Whenever I’ve thought of God’s call to Abraham to “go forth,” I’ve usually had the first of those three in mind.  I’ve thought of the unknown, with whatever fear and foreboding go with it.  He and some close family members are launching out into foreign territory.  This involves a different culture, with unfamiliar customs.  This involves moving from one’s kin, which would leave one vulnerable in many ways.

Clendenin combines the fear of the unknown with fear of others who are different and fear of powerlessness.  He says that Abraham “had to leave not only his geographic place.  He had to leave behind his narrow-minded, small-minded, parochial vision, the tendency in all of us to exclude the strange and the stranger,” the tendency to exclude the alien.

3 gn Which of Abraham’s three “movements” speaks most to you: fear of the unknown, fear of those who are different, or fear of powerlessness?  Which of the three would most likely hold you back?  Is there one of those fears that you’ve seen someone else conquer that gave, or continues to give you respect for them?

This speaks to us not only as individuals, but also as a congregation.  The same “movements,” the same fears to confront, affects churches as well.  All of this goes into answering the question, “How are we called?”  We can emphasize different words in that question and come up with different nuances.

Now, as for that apparently less-honorable part of our story, in which Abraham portrays Sarah as his sister, things become a little fuzzy.

E. A. Speiser tells us, “In Hurrian society [Abram was from Haran] the bonds of marriage were strongest and most solemn when the wife had simultaneously the [legal] status of a sister, regardless of actual blood ties. This is why a man would sometimes marry a girl and adopt her at the same time as his sister, in two separate steps recorded in independent legal documents. Violations of such sistership arrangements were punished more severely than breaches of marriage contracts.”[3]

In other words, it’s going to be bad news if you touch my wife, but if you touch my sister, you’re in for a world of hurt!

In fact, Chana Weisberg argues that Abraham showed such respect for Sarah that the question could be asked, “Was Abraham the first feminist?”[4]

6 gn

I mention all this, though not mainly for judging Abraham’s quality of character.  Instead, I’m wondering if Abraham is being obedient or disobedient to God’s call.  More specifically, I’m wondering if adapting to culture constitutes part of what it means to be called.

Admittedly, it is difficult to compare moral codes.  We are separated, not only by the distance, but by the time—four thousand years.  Their world was quite different from ours.

There’s also the element of desperation.  As verse 10 tells us, after Abraham arrived at his destination, there was a famine.  He was forced to go “to Egypt to reside there as an alien [we’ve just heard that word], for the famine was severe in the land.”  He was a refugee, dependent upon the kindness of others.  Factors beyond his control influenced him, even compelled him.  Factors beyond our control can do the same thing to us.

Still, the question of culture is timeless.  In working out our calling, we always have to deal with the culture around us.  It’s inescapable; we are immersed in our culture and in our subcultures.  Fish in water don’t know they are wet.  (Don’t ask me how I know that.)  Culture shapes how we perceive the world.  That’s why it’s important to learn about other cultures; it helps us to be more objective about our own.  It helps us, as best we can, to stand outside of it and look through the eyes of others.

There is also church culture; there is also congregational culture.  In a congregational system, there are written rules on how to behave, on how things are done.  We have our congregational bylaws.  As Presbyterians, we have our Book of Order.  But there are probably hundreds of unwritten rules on how to behave, on how things are done.  One reason for that is because everyone brings their own culture, their own experiences, to the table.

Imagine a pond on a quiet day.  Now picture throwing a rock into that pond.  The ripples spread out in all directions.  If someone else throws a rock into the pond, the ripples intersect.  Now imagine all of us throwing rocks into that pond.  Ripples are bouncing around everywhere.  Those interactions lead to the unwritten rules.  Otherwise, there is chaos!  (Although, sometimes a little chaos can be a good thing!)

What names, what rules, does our culture give us?  I’m fond of being called a “consumer.”  According to our economic system, my calling is to “consume.”  Maybe it’s just me, but I find that to be more than a little unsettling.

4 gn
That makes it all the more important to get a handle on the question, “How are we called?”  And going a little further, like Abraham, how are we called to bless?

A few years ago, Banu and I were invited to stay a couple of days at a camp and conference center about an hour’s drive east of Pittsburgh.  We were asked to do some workshops while there.

I did one which was inspired by an instructor I had in Clinical Pastoral Education.  What that meant for me was a student chaplaincy at a hospital, the result of which was my discovery that I was not cut out to be a hospital chaplain!  Still, I’m glad I was required to do it, being mandatory for Presbyterian ordination.  It was a good experience.  I really liked our instructor, although at times he tended to have a bit of a potty mouth!

There was one thing he had us practice which I thought was especially valuable.  He would challenge us to not use “God talk.”  That is, to avoid language that, for example, referenced “God” or “salvation” or “faith.”  It really forced us to stretch ourselves, to dig deep, to say what we meant by those words.

You might find this impossible to believe, but there are people who have actually had bad experiences with church or with Christians.  “God talk” can be a trigger for all kinds of negative stuff.  And then, there are those who simply don’t know what we’re talking about.

So that was my challenge to the folks at camp: describe your faith without using “God talk.”  For instance, what does “Jesus saves” mean?

Some of them welcomed the test and gave it a good “faith” shot!  For others—not so much.  And when I started pushing them on it, some got irritated; it was even written on their faces.  Some of them let me know their displeasure.  They were not happy with me.

I observed how reaching out to those outside the four walls might mean learning a different language.  I don’t know if they didn’t believe me or just didn’t care.  It does require change.  Do you know what we call something that doesn’t change?  Dead.  Life, by its very nature (even at the chemical level), requires change.

5 gnFor many of them, they just wanted to have a nice, relaxing weekend with their friends.  They didn’t need to be given this bit of uncomfortable work.  In my defense, this little exercise didn’t even take a half hour, but that was enough to tick them off.

(There is a nice postscript to this story.  That night, they broke out the board games.  Even the folks who got annoyed with me were happy when I joined in.  Playing games can be incredibly therapeutic!)

I will freely admit, it is not easy for us church people to avoid using “God talk.”  It is not easy at all.  It’s not easy for me.  Again, it forces us to explain what we mean.  But it is well worth the effort; it is well worth practicing.  It helps us to speak with others with understanding and one hopes, with compassion.

In the end, this business of culture pays off well for Abraham (and dare I say, Sarah).  He entered Egypt without; he is leaving Egypt with—a lot!  The chapter closes, “Pharaoh gave his men orders concerning him; and they set him on the way, with his wife and all that he had” (v. 20).  He’s on his way, following the call to “go forth.”  It’s central to how he is called.

How are we called?

 

[1] E. A. Speiser, Genesis (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964), 88.

[2] www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20080211JJ.shtml

[3] Speiser, 92.

[4] www.chabad.org/theJewishWoman/article_cdo/aid/2235031/jewish/Was-Abraham-the-First-Feminist.htm


love in the mirror

When I was a little boy, there was a time when I was afraid of mirrors.  Mind you, it wasn’t because I was afraid of my reflection, though I wasn’t in love with it, either!  No, my fear was based on the boogeyman of youthful imagination, the boogeyman of horror movies.  One reason I think horror movies are so scary to little kids is because they live so much in the moment, and they think—no, they know—those things in their nightmares really exist!

Anyway, after becoming familiar with vampires, besides drinking people’s blood, a quality I found especially creepy was their invisibility in the mirror.  Especially at night, I dreaded looking in the mirror.  A vampire could be standing right behind me.  And what really freaked me out was the thought of something tapping me on the shoulder.

1 jaBut I was also terrified that I would see something behind me.  It could be anything: some grim beast or somebody wielding a dagger.  Who knows what one’s mind can conjure up?

In today’s epistle reading, St. James has his own thoughts about mirrors.  His fear however, is not that people are afraid to look at them.  Rather, his concern is their power to deceive, or maybe it’s better to say, the power people have at self-deception.  Hold that thought; we’ll do more reflecting on mirrors in a few moments.

The epistle of James, in some respects, is unlike anything else in the New Testament.  It has characteristics similar to the wisdom literature of the Old Testament.  That includes the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, many of the Psalms, and much of the book of Job.  Like those works, James has many lessons and words of wisdom.

(By the way, Jesus Christ is only referred to twice.  Only 3 John has less, where he isn’t mentioned at all.)

Our passage begins in verse 19: “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”  On that bit about “slow to speak,” the 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard makes an embarrassing confession.

2 ja
Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

“I have just returned from a party,” he says, “of which I was the life and soul; wit poured from my lips, everyone laughed and admired me—but I went away—and the dash should be as long as the earth’s orbit—[inserted in the text is a dash taking up almost half the page] and wanted to shoot myself.”[1]

He knew he’d been behaving like a horse’s (fill in the blank).  Has anyone here ever felt like that?  I know I’m not the only one who’s had a moment of sane and sober self-reflection and thought, “I really wish I hadn’t said that”?  I sure made of fool of myself.

Speaking of being a fool, Father Richard Rohr (who I’ve mentioned before) outlines what he calls three gates through which the words of a wise person must pass.  This is basically his take on a saying from the Sufi tradition regarding speech: “Is it true?  Is it necessary?  Is it kind?”

So for him, “the first gate: Is what I’m saying really true?  If it’s not true, then, of course, don’t bother.

“The second gate: Is it loving?  Am I about to say something that will build up life and trust, or will it tear them down?

“The third gate (and probably the most difficult): Is what I am about to say really that necessary?  If it’s not, why clutter up the moment with more words and noise competing for space and attention?”[2]

Now those are words of wisdom.  Assuming the first gate has been successfully traversed (that is, are my words true?), we come to the second gate.  It might be true, but is it loving, is it life-enhancing?  It is possible to speak the truth, but in a way that is not helpful; in fact, it can be hurtful.

Our Book of Order begins with a section called “The Foundations of Presbyterian Polity.”  Believe it or not, it has all kinds of good stuff.  Under the heading “Historic Principles of Church Order” is the lovely little paragraph on “Truth and Goodness” (F-3.0104).  It begins by saying, “truth is in order to goodness.”  That means even the truth must serve the good.  It must promote goodness.

3 jaAs just suggested, it is possible to tell the truth with the purpose of crushing someone, beating them down.  The truth can be told with malevolent intent.  I call that “the devil’s truth.”  It’s meant, as I just said, to hurt and not to help.  To the extent it does that, it really isn’t the truth.  It isn’t God’s truth.

So we come to the third gate.  Even if it’s true and it’s loving, is it so important for me to throw in my two cent’s worth?  Do I (always) need to draw attention to myself?  Do I need to ruin the silence?  I suppose we need to decide if we are earnestly trying to be constructive or merely engaged in self-promotion.

There’s plenty to say about being “quick to listen,” but right now I want to be “slow to anger.”

There are many ways it can raise its hopping mad head, but there’s one I want to mention, infecting our culture.  Our beloved news networks, particularly the ones on cable, seem to enjoy generating plenty of heat, but not much light.  They don’t seem to be overly interested in actually educating their viewers.  Too often they seem interested in hammering home their viewpoints in red-faced rants.  “Where’s the outrage?”

It might help for everyone to take a deep breath, count to ten, and then think before we speak.  How’s that for being “quick to listen”?

Our friend James adds, “your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.  Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls” (vv. 20-21).  There’s plenty to say about that, but as promised, I want to move on with our reflection on mirrors.  Please bear in mind, we need to carry all of that wisdom we just heard when we gaze into the mirror.

He talks about “the implanted word,” and it’s the word of which we need to be doers “and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (v. 22).  Here’s where that self-deception I mentioned earlier comes into play.  A mirror, figuratively speaking, can show us the way we wish to see ourselves.  Looking into it, we can highlight some qualities in an unrealistic way.  (Unfortunately, it’s often true we can see ourselves as less than, as worse than, we truly are.  We can beat ourselves up.)

James’ call to be quick to listen must also be translated into action.  We can behold ourselves in the mirror and get a good look, and upon walking away, forget what we just saw.

There’s a reflection on these verses called, “Seeing Ourselves in the Mirror of the Word.”[3]  Our good friend, Kierkegaard—the one with the embarrassing story about the party—is quoted in it.  Stephen Evans, a professor at Baylor, is an expert on the Great Dane.  He says, “The fundamental purpose of God’s Word is to give us true self-knowledge; it is a real mirror, and when we look at ourselves properly in it we see ourselves as God wants us to see ourselves.”

4 ja

Inserting the world “properly” makes a big difference.  As just said, we can see ourselves for better or worse than we really are.  Perhaps seeing ourselves as better, as overinflating, means we have arrived; there’s nothing more to learn.  Seeing ourselves as worse might lead us to think there’s no point in trying; we’re going to fail anyway!

Continuing with his thought, “The assumption behind this is that the purpose of God’s revelation is for us to become transformed, to become the people God wants us to be, but this is impossible until we see ourselves as we really are.”  By the grace of God, we have a clear image of who we are—or at least, as clear an image as we mere mortals can have.  We aren’t left in the dark like those vampires.

Here’s verse 25: “But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.”  What is “the perfect law, the law of liberty”?  James says in chapter 2, “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (v. 8).  The royal law, the perfect liberating law, is the law of love.  Love makes demands of us like none other.

It can be awfully easy to look into that mirror and say, “Okay, that’s who I am,” and then walk away and forget all about it.  But I know, nobody here has ever done that!

Still, if we hold to it, if we keep at it, we will be blessed in our doing.  I like the late Henri Nouwen’s take on blessing and being blessed.[4]  “To bless means to say good things.  We have to bless one another constantly.”

(That is “bless one another”—not “bless one another out”!  And as some folks say in the South, “Well, bless yo’ heart!”  Please note: that is not an affirmation!)

5 jaNouwen continues, “Parents need to bless their children, children their parents, husbands their wives, wives their husbands, friends their friends.  In our society, so full of curses, we must fill each place we enter with our blessings.”

What does that blessing look like?  James describes true religion, true faith.  We’re back to the bit about “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”  Bridle your tongue; don’t deceive your heart.  Care for those in need.  What about caring for those who do not know the Lord?  Or maybe, do not know in a way that makes the Lord a reality in their lives?

So much requires change—not something we readily embrace.  Still, life is, by its very nature, change.  Something that doesn’t change is dead.  The law of liberty, the law of love, is reflected in that mirror held before us.  That calls us to change.  What happens after that?  As the chapter ends, again by the grace of God, we “keep [ourselves] unstained by the world” (v. 27).  We have a resource, a substance, to clean up the uncleanness we accept from the world around us.

The hymn, “What Can Wash Away My Sin?” does a pretty good job explaining it.  Here’s the refrain: “O, precious is the flow / That makes me white as snow; / No other fount I know, / Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”  Oddly enough, with the blood of Jesus we are washed white as snow!  Our stain is removed.

We are shown the mirror of the word, and we find love in the mirror.

 

[1] A Kierkegaard Anthology, ed. Robert Bretall (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton Univ. Press, 1973), 7.

[2] Richard Rohr, On the Threshold of Transformation (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2010), 341.

[3] www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/174976.pdf

[4] henrinouwen.org/meditation/blessing-one-another


light unexpected

“O God, we pray Thee for those who come after us, for our children, and the children of our friends, and for all the young lives that are marching up from the gates of birth…  We remember with a pang that these will live in the world we are making for them.  We are wasting the resources of the earth in our headlong greed, and they will suffer want…  We are poisoning the air of our land by our lies and our uncleanness, and they will breathe it.

“…Grant us grace to leave the earth fairer than we found it; to build upon it cities of God in which the cry of needless pain shall cease; and to put the yoke of Christ upon our business life that it may serve and not destroy…”

1 epiphany
Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969)

Those are words from a prayer by Walter Rauschenbusch; they date back to 1910—over a century ago.  They’re in a book published in 1917, Harry Emerson Fosdick’s The Meaning of Faith.[1]  It was published during what came to be known as “the Great War” and “the war to end all wars.”

Human knowledge and technology during the latter part of the nineteenth century had reached new heights.  However, as we might know all too well, knowledge and wisdom rarely progress at the same rate.  The so-called “civilized” nations were plunged into what Fosdick calls “the most terrific war men ever waged, when faith is sorely tried and deeply needed.”[2]

So far, the twenty-first century has amply demonstrated that lack of wisdom in dealing with conflict, at the international level and elsewhere.  To the unknowns of this unfolding century, the impulse to respond with fear is always present.  The future can be seen as a void, filled with darkness.  We have to be cautious of morbid or despairing outlooks that expect disaster and become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It’s like the “law of attraction,” which can go under various names.  It’s the idea that whatever we project into the world, the universe, the ether, is what we attract.  I’m reminded of the verse in Titus which goes, “To the pure all things are pure, but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure” (1:15).

To this vision of darkness, we need something that’s light.  Literally.  Epiphany, which falls on Saturday this week, is all about light.  It’s all about the glory of God shining in Jesus Christ.  It’s all about the appearance, or manifestation, of Jesus to the Gentiles—to the world.  Our word, “epiphany,” comes from the Greek term επιφανεια (epiphaneia), which appears in several places, such as 2 Timothy 1:10, where we learn that “grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing [or through the epiphany] of our Savior Christ Jesus.”

Our gospel reading, the visit of the Magi, is the primary image of Epiphany.  The Magi were more than likely Zoroastrian priests, the ancient faith of Persia.  They’ve been called “wise men,” “kings,” “astrologers.”  But whatever you call them, they’re the first Gentiles in the Bible to see the Christ child.

They notice a star which they interpret to signify a special birth.  So off they go to Judea, asking questions about “the child who has been born king of the Jews” (v. 2).

2 epiphany

The guy currently claiming that title, Herod the Great, gets nervous when he hears about it.  (His campaign pledge was “vote for me, and I will bring you cruelty and paranoia.”)  Learning from the religious leaders the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, he wastes no time and sets up a secret meeting with the Magi.  Herod wants to know two things.  When did you first see the star?  Will you find the child and let me know where he is?  “After all, I want to pay my respects, too!”  (Wink, wink.)

The Magi, upon finding the young Jesus and offering their presents, have a dream telling them, “Don’t go back to Herod.”  So they leave for home, taking the bypass around Jerusalem!

Herod tries to stamp out the light that the Magi found.  Not simply a light in the sky, the light they found is the one who enlightens all of humanity.  The deeper we go into the epiphany of Jesus, the more wonders we find.

There’s another meaning to epiphany, which I imagine we know.  It has the sense of a sudden awareness of truth, a flash of understanding.  It’s when the light goes on.  Eureka!

I want to tell you a story.  It didn’t happen to me, but I think I can identify with John Artz, the one it happened to.  It’s the story of a personal epiphany.[3]

He says, “I suppose that most people never bother themselves with questions about the meaning of life.  I, on the other hand, can’t seem to think of much else.  One day as I was driving home, I filled the empty moments with musings about the possible meanings of life.  As the car bottomed in a dip and began to pounce over the next rise, I turned the wheel to the left and leaned into the turn to overcome the centrifugal force.

3 epiphany

“Then it came to me in a flash.  There were four principles basic to all aspects of life.  These four principles could be combined in various ways to explain everything—why we are here, what we should do, why we are the way we are—every nagging question I had ever pondered.

“It was an epiphany.  It was one of those two or three seconds in your life when it all makes sense.  When you are one with wisdom and understanding.  When there is no more asking, only doing.  I raced through examples in my mind to come up with something that these four principles did not explain, but I could find nothing.

“‘Well,’ I thought. ‘I’d better write these down before I forget them.’  I had had moments of insight before and knew how quickly they could evaporate.  I steered with my left hand and rummaged through the glove box with the other, looking for something to write with.  I looked through every cubby hole in the car but there was no pen to be found.  I looked around and realized that I was just minutes from home and that I could preserve the insight by just repeating it to myself for a few minutes.  Once in the door, I would head to my desk and jot down these ideas before they decayed.

“I pulled into the garage, turned off the ignition, pulled up the emergency brake, left the car and headed for the door.

4 epiphany“When I opened the door, the kids were fighting over a [video] game.  The cat was tormenting the fish.  And my wife started rattling off a list of everyone who had called and left messages.  Then she asked me what I wanted for dinner.  I chased the cat away from the fishbowl, tried to negotiate a peaceful settlement between the kids, and then turned to my wife and said, ‘What are the choices?’

“By the time I got to my office only a few minutes had passed, but the inspiration had disappeared like a dream upon waking.  It left a residue of that feeling of understanding, but nothing to hang that understanding on.

“Many times I have reenacted that car trip in my head trying to recall the four principles but the muse of understanding never returned: until yesterday.  As I drove home yesterday the insight returned—not the four principles, but the understanding.  The significance was never in the four principles, but in the story about them.”

For our friend, what were most important weren’t the particular ideas he came up with; it was the process itself.  It was the experience of having the light come on, of experiencing an epiphany.  Returning to the biblical understanding, what matters is experiencing the light—the glory—of God in Jesus Christ.  And when that happens, the principles, the insights, the vision—all of that comes with it.  We’re changed for the better.

Thinking again about the Magi, we know that they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod to report the location of Jesus.  Instead, as the scripture says, “they left for their own country by another road.”  I believe they did just that.  But I wonder if that statement isn’t true at another level.

These men had no idea what they would find when they set out on their journey.  The Magi were accustomed to associating with those in positions of power.  Surely the star they saw promised a change in regime, perhaps one who would bring even mighty Rome to its knees.

Who could know that the king of the Jews would turn out to be the humble child of a poor family—a family which soon found themselves fleeing their homeland, fearing their rulers, becoming refugees?  And who can say how meeting this family effected these wise men from the East?  Perhaps in leaving “for their own country by another road,” the Magi also were choosing another path in life.

5 epiphany

Epiphany reminds us that the light of Christ is for the entire world.  And it’s also an experience of light that’s deeper than the words we use to describe it.  Our words, our language, about God and Jesus and life in general give us a picture of reality.  We talk about things; we use names, but that’s not the same thing as actually meeting them, experiencing them.

The light sneaks up on us; it takes us unaware.  It’s such a joyful, shocking, unexpected source of grandeur.  The darkness of Fosdick’s warning loses its gloom.  Our poor, stumbling lives are radiantly exposed by something wondrous and holy. 

When we encounter the humble, holy child, we are changed—and we’re challenged.  We see, by the light of the Epiphany of the Lord, our own lack of humility; we see our own arrogance.  But thanks be to God, into the darkness that wants to enshroud us, Jesus says, “Let there be light!”

 

[1] Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Meaning of Faith (New York:  Association Press, 1917), 60.

[2] Fosdick, vii.

[3] gwis2.circ.gwu.edu/~jartz/alter/stories/epiphany.html


when leaves give way to frost

“The present form of this world is passing away.”

The autumn equinox is September 22.  (At least, that’s in the northern hemisphere.  In the south, it is the spring equinox.)  The equinox is the time of year when the sun’s light is spread evenly over the entire earth.  For us, the days become shorter until we reach the winter solstice, when we start the process all over again, as the days begin getting longer.

1 autumn

For many, the gathering darkness spells a sense of gloom.  As the leaves give way to frost, a sense of solemnity becomes more evident.  But it need not be a time for sorrow—there is great joy in solemnity.  We are reminded of the impermanence of all things.  And that too is a note of joy.  Without dying, there can be no rebirth.

And yet, autumn is also a time for beginning.  A new school year commences.  The world is once again clothed in gold and orange.  It’s time to play football!

The spirituality of autumn speaks of transition and balance.  Just as the leaves flutter to the ground, autumn is a time for letting go.  There is indeed a transition from the fire of summer to the ice of winter.  It is a time of balance between day and night, between light and dark.

Wesley Baines poses an interesting question.  “How can we get in touch with the spiritual side of autumn in our contemporary age?”  Hmm, how indeed?  He suggests, “By being mindful and being present.  Turn off your devices and simply take a walk.”  Wait!  Turn off my phone?  God forbid!  “Make your pilgrimage of leaves, being mindful of the color of sky and grass and leaf and stone, of the feel of the air, of the scents and textures and sights all around you.”  I’m sure others are better at taking this advice (that is, letting the experience fill them with a sense of presence) than I am.

3 autumnHe continues, “Pay attention to what nature is doing around you—after all, everything has a purpose, including the changing of the seasons.  They remind us to keep changing, to not allow ourselves to become stagnant.”

How is it with us?  Are there things we need to shed?  No, forget that.  What things do we need to shed?  What things do we need to let go of?  What is holding us back?  This speaks to our interim, transitory time.  It speaks to all of our lives as human beings.

As St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7, “The present form of this world is passing away” (v. 31).  We sometimes think of “the end of the world as we know it.”  (TEOTWAWKI)

Autumn teaches us the lesson of not hanging on to the moment.  Let the Holy Spirit guide us as the wind which blows the leaves.  Learn to dance with the leaves and then say goodbye, as we welcome the frost.

2 autumn


imitate me (not the dogs)

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” That seems to be one of those universal truths, expressing the way life seems to remain in a state of flux. Things are always changing!

Actually, the fact that things continue to change is part of life itself. Whether we’re thinking about single-celled organisms that jitter and ooze around—or the larger creatures we call animals that are “animated”—by its very nature, life requires movement; it requires change.

Here’s where I trot out my scientific acumen. There is a technical term for something that never changes: it’s called “dead.”

image from www.liveintentionally.org

Congregations are living things. As a result, they also are constantly changing. Some see a difference between change and transition. “Change” is something that simply happens. Change is an event, whether we choose it or not. “Transition” is how we experience that change. We have very little say about whether or not we want change (that is, of course, if we want to remain alive!). Transition, though, is something we can control.

In Philippians 3, we see the apostle Paul trying to lead the people through the change that the gospel inevitably brings. It’s inescapable. In this particular case, it’s abandoning circumcision as a requirement for faith. That’s a good thing for more than one reason (including the fact that I squirm when thinking of circumcision!). A more important reason is that the practice excludes females. As Christians, our rite of entry into the church is the all-inclusive sacrament of baptism.

Whether people embrace change as transition in the new reality is another question. Will they come to terms with it? Will they change their practices?

In his book, When God Speaks Through Change, Craig Satterlee looks at congregations in interim, transitional times. He says that in-between times can seem “wasted and meaningless.” (Kindle edition, 1.5.2) But that need not be the case. He even uses extreme language. “Chaos,” he says, “is more hospitable to new ideas than are standardized methods and routines.” If we’re satisfied with old routines, we tend to shut out fresh perspectives, innovative points of view.

For Satterlee, we need to “resist the desire for certainty and closure. Congregations often try too quickly to ‘get back to normal’ when in reality there is no ‘normal’ to get back to.” (1.5.4) There is no “normal,” because due to change, we’re in a new environment, a new world. He adds, “Resisting people’s desire for certainty and closure is continuous.”

That might seem counter-intuitive. Certainty and closure are by no means bad things. But when speaking of moving through transition, they can lead to some big time foot dragging.

I’ll ask something that we always need to consider. What changes are we facing now? If we want to choose life, what transition do we need to follow? The season of Lent, with its focus on reflection and discernment, lends itself well to questions like that.

I began my sermon by setting the stage in a way different from the way the apostle Paul does it. If you notice my sermon title, you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about. In verse 17 he says, “Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.” Imitate me, he says.

And on this business of “imitating me,” this isn’t the only place where he gives that particular bit of advice. He does it in 1 Corinthians chapters 4 and 11, where he qualifies it by saying, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (v. 1).

But if we go back to the beginning of the chapter, look at what he calls those who insist on circumcision. “Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh!” (v. 2). It sounds like the tagline for a horror movie!

A few years ago, Arthur Paul Boers wrote a book on troublesome behavior in the church. He gave his book the title, Never Call Them Jerks. I wonder what Paul would make of that.

Nevertheless, his heart is in the right place. At the end of our passage, Paul addresses his “brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved” (4:1).

So yes: St. Paul doesn’t always use diplomatic language. In fact, he can be quite salty. In verse 8, he says he regards “everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish.”

The Greek word translated as “rubbish” (skúbala) refers to something a bit more odorous than that. In his paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, Eugene Peterson says, “Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung.” And that’s being euphemistic!

Is there anything we might think of as skúbala, something we know it’s time to, say, bag and dispose of?

Still, we should be mindful that what Paul now rejects isn’t necessarily something bad, in and of itself. Think of food that, when fresh or newly cooked, is very tasty. But after a while, it begins to turn. It’s no longer nutritious, leading to health and life; it actually becomes poisonous, leading to sickness and death.

With the often intense language Paul uses, it can be easy to forget that. He speaks of those who “live as enemies of the cross of Christ” (v. 18). These aren’t necessarily people bent on acts of terrorism! In verse 19, we hear this: “Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.”

They are on a path that doesn’t lead to fullness of life. They follow their own appetites first—which sadly, is a very easy trap for all of us. They’re proud of stuff which should make them ashamed. They don’t allow their vision to be lifted up; they run from challenges.

image from 292fc373eb1b8428f75b-7f75e5eb51943043279413a54aaa858a.r38.cf3.rackcdn.com

As I hope I’m making clear, these “dogs” aren’t necessarily bad people. Sometimes, they are just stuck. They need the Holy Spirit to get them unstuck.

There’s a Lenten Bible study, Toward the Sunrise, that poses the question, “Is it sometimes fear of failure that stops us from doing something, or can it also be the fear of what we might discover?” (3) That can apply to many things, including change, which can be pretty daunting. As I suggested earlier, there can be a tendency to dig in our heels and resist transition.

Is there a fear of failure? To me, that second question might be even more compelling. Is there a fear of what we might discover?

The study looks ahead a couple of weeks to Easter. In Luke’s version, when the women visit the empty tomb, two men in blazing garments ask the question, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” (4) (By the way, there’s that technical scientific term I started out with!)

What about us? Do we look for the living among the dead? Are there structures, practices, ways of organizing, that once upon a time, served very well, but no longer function that way? Is there anything of which we can say, “They don’t lend themselves to the flow of the Holy Spirit they once used to”?

Too often (and I include myself), we say that we welcome change—just as long as we’re not the ones undergoing the change! Let other people change. But that’s what transition is all about. That’s what life is all about. That’s why looking for life among the dead is ultimately self-defeating.

In my early twenties, I was a member of the Assemblies of God. Among the Pentecostals, I heard on occasion that “the Holy Spirit is a gentleman.” That’s not a reference to gender, although it’s not very helpful that it’s presented with masculine language! No, it means God does not coerce us into anything, including the transition that accompanies change. Even though we might feel the Spirit stirring within us, a tugging at our heart, so to speak, we still have a choice. We can still say no. God is love, and God does not force us to do anything. God is gentle.

In fact, if we feel shoved, overly pressured, that might be a red flag. That also goes for your interim pastors. We are here to offer guidance, not compulsion. We share observations, celebrate wonderful achievements, and perhaps note things that might require a second look (or even a first look).

But thank the Lord; we don’t take on this interim project all by ourselves. And by “ourselves,” I’m also speaking of the larger community and the presbytery.

No, in verse 21, St. Paul says that Christ “will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory” (v. 21). The body of humiliation is transformed to the body of glory. You know, that’s not such a bad deal!

So, as we revisit the questions I mentioned earlier, “What changes are we facing now?” and “What transition do we need?” we can be assured that we’re not alone in that.

God is doing and will continue to do a new thing. God is moving us calmly and steadily to places where we will experience new ways of being with God.

That’s what the community of Christ is about. That applies to us, regardless of our age or station in life. While we draw breath, we are called into that adventure which is the imitation of Christ. And that, brothers and sisters, beloved, is how we stand firm in the Lord.